The extended birthday bash for Hawai’i’s acclaimed surfer Duke Kahanamoku makes August an ideal time to visit O’ahu’s Waikiki Beach. Last year, one never-ever surfer truly took the celebration to heart.
It’s my first morning in Hawai’i after arriving on the last flight of the previous night. I’ve yet to taste my inaugural Mai Tai and I’m rushing at a ridiculously early hour from the palatial perch of our oceanfront suite to the beach below. I’m sprinting to a surf lesson—my virgin attempt at Hawai’i’s classic sport.
“Good luck and remember to have fun,” my husband mumbles as his heavy eyelids slide shut again.
Thus, my Waikiki Beach adventure begins.
The trip is celebratory—to mark my birthday. It is by happenstance that our travel dates coincide with the August festivities in honor of the late surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku’s own birthday (his 116th on August 24).
I’m a regular exerciser but not even a decent swimmer. Back home, my closet is filled with stiletto heels, not flip-flops. As a veteran vacationer, my travel experiences are numerous: shopping in Hong Kong, cruising the Galapagos Islands and hopscotching through Scotland, distillery to distillery. But these selections are of the safe sort, with no legitimate opportunity to experience failure.
All of that changed when I turned 39 (again). So, despite my predisposition to pampering, the birthday present to myself was adventure. When I learned that the birthday of Hawai’i’s revered Father of Surfing was also being celebrated, the surf diva in me chose to make her debut. And because morning is said to be the best time for surfing, an indecently early wake-up call was last night’s final request.
“Hi, I’m Barney,” the buff, bronzed instructor introduces himself. A homegrown beach boy, Barney is among Waikiki’s official water sport instructors whose offices are on the sand and whose job descriptions involve the sea. They share Hawai’i’s ocean activities with tourists like me.
This is not a job you apply for, I’m told. You just hang out on the beach, get recognized by working beach boys and are asked to join their ranks. It’s an apprenticeship of sorts.
Waikiki’s original beach boys began the tradition in the 1920s along the shorefront of the Royal Hawaiian and Moana hotels. There they taught visiting adventurers how to surf atop boards and catch waves in outrigger canoes and, in the process, began sharing the Islands’ spirit of Aloha.
Duke Kahanamoku was among the first beach boys. And he made his mark big time. As a five-time Olympic swimming medalist, a 13-term Honolulu sheriff, and the noted “Ambassador of Aloha,” Duke became a legend—Hawai’i’s most famous citizen. He cast such a warm, welcoming shadow over the Islands that today an oversize statue of him and his longboard greets visitors at the gateway of Waikiki Beach.
But back to Barney. An instructor for the past four years, he teaches 1,000 surfing wannabes a year.
What is your success rate?” I quiz.
When he responds, “Ninety percent,” I need no calculator to compute my 10 percent chance of failure.
I’m called a “schooly” (surfing lesson first-timer), invoking distant memories of disquieting school-related firsts. But this classroom is different . . . it’s on Waikiki, and the backdrop is Diamond Head.
Class is in session.
“I believe in making everything easy and efficient,” Barney says.
Straddled atop the sand-anchored surfboard, I listen to his five basic and (he says) “easy” steps.
1. Lie straight and toward the back of the board.
2. Place your hands flat on the board parallel to its edge and close to your chest.
3. From a kneeling position, bring your least dominate foot (in my case, the right) between your hands.
4. Put your opposite foot at a right angle to the board’s nose and rise slowly to a standing position.
5. Turn your least dominant foot parallel to its mate, face your body straight ahead and— this is the best part— relax.
Once in the water, my challenges are numerous: keeping salt water out of my eyes, keeping a watchful eye out for other surfers (especially difficult with salt water in my eyes), and getting the board to turn in the direction desired (and not toward the other surfers, whom I can’t see because of the salt water in my eyes).
Über athlete I am not. So when Barney acknowledges an 83-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl surfing in my so-called turf, the word coming to mind is, well, intimidation.
“Lie straight, hands on board, right foot forward, stand,” I mentally echo the mantra.
“I will get up,” I vow. I wipe the salt water from my eyes and silently repeat the vow with what I am certain is greater frequency than the “I-dos” promised in Las Vegas wedding chapels.
At one point, Barney straddles my board across his own, giving me greater stability to revisit the five steps while on water.
“I think I may be in your 10 percent category,” I admit reluctantly.
Then I remember the beach chair I’ve rented for later. There it sits on the beach beneath an umbrella, beckoning to me, and suddenly the possibility of becoming a member of Barney’s minority stat list is far more acceptable than it was just moments ago.
“Okay, let’s try again,” Barney directs as he simultaneously turns my blue board in the direction of the incoming surf.
As I paddle, the repetitive sound of the water slapping against the nose of my board while waves roll beneath me is unexpectedly relaxing. The smell of salt in the air and the morning sun warming my skin immerses me powerfully into the world of Waikiki.
I recall a long ago, fact-filled conversation with a primo surfer, until now filed in the attic of my mind. In summation, I replay the reassuring facts he’d told me. With its perfectly sized and predictably stable 2-foot winter waves and 3-foot summer swells, Waikiki Beach is earth’s best place to learn the sport. The smaller surf makes it less strenuous to paddle out and easier to ride back in.
Coupled with the shallow sea and warmer water (eliminating the need for wetsuits), it’s unbeatable for a surfing dilettante. In short, this is simply the surfing world’s ultimate bunny slope.
I’m pumped, I’m jazzed, and I’m set.
“Get ready,” Barney advises, spotting a swell before its transformation to a full-blown wave. “Start paddling,” he instructs. “Faster, faster!” he shouts. “Right foot forward,” I hear him say in the distance.
And I’m up!
The reaction is no less than a 10 on my rookie’s Richter scale.
How long did I remain vertical, you might wonder? It may have been only single-digit “surfing seconds,” but my internal stopwatch aside, it was an endless, never-to-be-forgotten performance. And many more followed.
Toward the end of that memorable day, when I saunter into Duke’s Canoe Club (his namesake eatery on the water), I can’t help but display a little bit of attitude. My revelry springs in part from suddenly finding myself a member of an exclusive club—one I’d never expected to join.
Located on the beach level of the Outrigger Waikiki hotel, Duke’s Canoe Club & Barefoot Bar is the hangout, where beach boys, surfers, watermen, and landlubbers alike congregate. The locale is historic—on the very site of the original Outrigger Canoe Club, overseeing the waters where Duke caught the biggest ride of his life. And it’s that common affinity for the ocean that bonds every patron in the place.
“Did you surf today?” a regular casually inquires of me. The question is standard conversation found in this tavern.
“Actually, I did,” I hesitantly respond. I boastfully add, “for the first time.”
His reaction: a high five.
The spontaneous gesture makes it official. Though words such as rip, crash and burn, wipeout, and curl would never be uttered to describe my surf session, I did join the surfing ranks.
Sounding a bit like Oscar-awed Sally Field, my thoughts regard my newfound status. “I’m a surfer, I’m really a surfer,” I silently exult as I survey the nearby Pacific and the water park terrain that I traversed only a few hours earlier.
“Beer? the bartender inquires. “To celebrate Duke’s birthday?”
Nodding my head affirmatively, I order with specificity. “Make that a Longboard Lager.” What else would a surfer drink?
Cynthia Dial is a San Diego travel writer. Her book, Teach Yourself Travel Writing, is in its second printing. She describes herself as a better sport than athlete.
DUKE’S 2007 OCEANFEST
WHO/Duke Kahanamoku, a five-time Olympic medalist and the first inductee in both the Swimming Hall of Fame (1965) and the Surfing Hall of Fame (1966)
WHAT/The nine-day celebration honors the 117th anniversary of the icon’s birthday (August 24, 1890). Among the events of the sixth annual affair are Duke’s Legends Surf Classic, the Hawai’I’ Paddleboard Championship, and the Beach Volleyball Tournament.